Working the Refs: The Right, the Media and ACORN

If you want a lesson in how right-wing pressure on corporate media works, look no further than the ACORN story. Right-wing talkshow hosts have targeted the community organizing group for years, primarily on charges of vote fraud. Then two conservative activists produced some embarrassing videos of ACORN workers at some local offices giving tax advice advice to a couple passing themselves off as a pimp and a prostitute. From there, the story turned to right-wing gloating–and complaints about the media being too slow (and of course too liberal) to pick up on the right’s anti-ACORN crusade.

And some in the media agreed. Washington Post ombud Andrew Alexander (9/20/09) criticized his paper for running just two early stories about the recent scandals involving the group. The problem was that the paper apparently doesn’t pay enough attention to the concerns of the right–a feeling shared by the paper’s executive editor, who called for more coverage of the group.

Over at the New York Times, public editor Clark Hoyt reached a similar conclusion (9/27/09), writing that when the paper misses such stories, it can “wind up looking clueless or, worse, partisan itself.” The Times was clueless, apparently, because they ran just one story about the anti-ACORN campaign, a piece that upset conservatives because it looked at the issue as a political matter–explaining that the videos and talk radio brouhaha was a way for the right to try and do harm to a group it opposes, and to try and connect ACORN to the Obama White House. This is undoubtedly true. But editors at the Times, like the folks at the Post, offered the same self-criticism: We don’t pay enough attention to the complaining of conservatives.

Sure enough, only a few days later, readers would see how this was changing. On October 6, the Post ran a piece on Republicans going after the Service Employees International Union, or SEIU, for their ties to ACORN. The union has paid ACORN for various services over the years. A nearly identical story appeared in the next day’s New York Times (10/7/09). So the completely-blown-out-of-proportion case against ACORN has now become a drive against SEIU, with no apparent news hook other than the fact that right-wing Republicans are trying to make this non-story into a story–and succeeding.

I guess editors at the Times and Post can rest easy knowing that they’re not ignoring the whining of the right-wing.

About Peter Hart

Activism Director and and Co-producer of CounterSpinPeter Hart is the activism director at FAIR. He writes for FAIR's magazine Extra! and is also a co-host and producer of FAIR's syndicated radio show CounterSpin. He is the author of The Oh Really? Factor: Unspinning Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly (Seven Stories Press, 2003). Hart has been interviewed by a number of media outlets, including NBC Nightly News, Fox News Channel's O'Reilly Factor, the Los Angeles Times, Newsday and the Associated Press. He has also appeared on Showtime and in the movie Outfoxed. Follow Peter on Twitter at @peterfhart.